Although freedom of expression is enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution, journalists’ ability to cover the news was impeded by judges whose legal interpretations effectively restricted the press. During the run-up to the October 1 general election, electoral courts banned media outlets from covering corruption allegations against political candidates.
Many journalists also worked in dangerous conditions. Even reporters in large government and business centers such as Brasília, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro court risk whenever they report on organized crime, drug trafficking, or political corruption. On August 12, TV Globo reporter Guilherme de Azevedo Portanova and technician Alexandre Coelho Calado were seized in São Paulo by members of the First Capital Command (PCC) criminal gang. Calado was freed later that day with a recorded message demanding improved prison conditions. The kidnappers warned that Portanova, who had covered a wave of PCC attacks in May, would be killed if TV Globo did not broadcast the message. After consulting international security agencies, TV Globo aired the three-minute tape on August 13, and Portanova was released unharmed the next day.
In the Northeast interior and in the region bordering Paraguay, journalism and politics often intertwine, a volatile situation that exposes journalists to threats, attacks, and murder. In rural areas, where radio is the primary source of news, commentators routinely campaign for political candidates, attack political adversaries, and use the airwaves as a springboard for their own political aspirations. In 2006, the general elections again saw journalists and radio hosts seeking and winning political office.
Outspoken and highly partisan, these radio commentators have become targets of violence. Five radio journalists have been killed in as many years in the Northeast alone, making that region one of the deadliest for journalists in the Americas. The slayings prompted CPJ to dispatch a mission to the Northeastern states of Ceará and Pernambuco in August.
In “Radio Rage,” a special report released in October, CPJ documented widespread abuse of 1998 legislation intended to diversify radio broadcasting by allotting radio licenses to community-based nonprofits. Instead, CPJ and other researchers found, politicians have come to own and control hundreds of these “nonprofit” stations. Nearly nine out of every 10 community radio applicants presented for parliamentary approval in 2002, for example, were not legitimate nonprofits, said Israel Bayma, a University of Brasília researcher whose work has been cited nationally. Despite explicit regulatory bans on political propaganda, these stations function as mouthpieces for politicians at nearly every level of government.
The misuse of the community broadcasting law has clogged the regulatory system and slowed the approval of legitimate applicants. Community organizations complained that ANATEL, the telecommunications regulatory agency, closed dozens of community radio stations operating without broadcasting licenses and confiscated their equipment. Several thousand community stations now on the air have formally requested licenses, but the approval process takes many years. Government officials blamed the delays on the difficulties in identifying legitimate community stations, as opposed to those controlled by politicians and businessmen.
Politicians also own many commercial broadcast outlets, concessions for which are auctioned by the federal government. The Institute for the Development of Journalism (PROJOR), a media ethics and press freedom organization, reported in 2005 that 51 out of the 513 deputies in the lower chamber of the Congress were partners or directors in radio and TV stations nationwide. PROJOR filed a complaint with the federal attorney general in October 2005, arguing that political ownership of broadcast outlets violated Article 54 of the Constitution, which says federal legislators cannot be affiliated “with a company that has obtained a concession for a public service.” The attorney general’s preliminary analysis found no unlawful activity.
Political control of all forms of radio has given rise to a stridently partisan, attack-oriented form of commentary. “Almost all radio stations belong to political groups, and these groups confront each other through the stations,” said Aquiles Lopes, a reporter with the Recife-based daily Diário de Pernambuco. The confrontational commentary, in turn, has generated threats and attacks against journalists, he said.
Brazilian electoral law strictly regulates the distribution of political advertising in print and broadcast media during the run-up to an election. Newspapers are allowed to publish an opinion favorable to a candidate, political party, or coalition, provided that the article is not paid for by a political campaign. As for broadcast outlets, electoral legislation bans radio and TV stations from “broadcasting political propaganda or disseminating an opinion favorable or contrary to a candidate, political party, or coalition” in the three months prior to an election. A system of regional electoral courts is charged with ruling on complaints.
The electoral provisions, as well as others related to the honor and reputations of political candidates, are frequently abused by politicians who claim that any criticisms or allegations of corruption are designed to favor their rivals. They frequently succeed in their complaints. On September 30, for example, an electoral judge in Amazonas state shut down the Manaus-based channel TV A Crítica for 24 hours in response to a complaint filed by incumbent Gov. Eduardo Braga. During a September 27 debate that Braga did not attend, TV A Crítica introduced segments with reports about corruption allegations in the governor’s administration. The judge ruled that the reports were electoral propaganda offensive to Braga’s honor and dignity.
Other, harsh provisions restricting the work of the press remained on the books. Both the penal code and the infamous 1967 Press Law–the latter approved under a military regime–criminalize defamation and slander. The Press Law sets prison terms of six months to three years for slander, while the penal code calls for imprisonment of three months to a year for defamation. Defamation lawsuits against the media–mostly civil complaints–have numbered in the thousands over the last few years, according to local news reports. Businessmen, politicians, and public officials often file multiple lawsuits against news outlets and journalists in an effort to strain their financial resources and force them to halt their criticisms. Plaintiffs seek disproportionately large amounts of money for “moral and material damages.”
In the name of protecting privacy and reputations, judges routinely issue injunctions banning media outlets from covering corruption allegations involving public officials, politicians, and businessmen. On May 8, for instance, a judge in Campo Grande, capital of Mato Grosso do Sul state, granted gubernatorial candidate André Puccinelli an injunction against the local daily Correio do Estado. Puccinelli sought to constrain the paper from reporting on a federal money-laundering probe first disclosed in the April 25 edition of the large São Paulo daily O Estado de S.Paulo. Following up on the report, Correio do Estado had sought comment from Puccinelli, who denied any wrongdoing. The judge granted Puccinelli’s request and ordered Correio do Estado to meet the requirements of “objectivity of information,” “verification of sources,” and “impartiality and independence in news reporting” in its coverage of Puccinelli. If it failed to do so, it would be fined 500 reals (US$230) for each copy of any story that fell short of those criteria. The paper appealed the ruling.
The concentration of media ownership remained a concern, particularly in a broadcasting sector dominated by the Organizações Globo group, one of the world’s largest media companies and the perennial national leader in advertising revenue. In some of the largest domestic markets, a dominant media group controls newspapers, network and cable TV channels, radio stations, and Internet portals, limiting the diversity of news offerings for Brazilians.